Ryan Braun is guilty as sin. The star Milwaukee Brewers outfielder—the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 2007 and Most Valuable Player in 2011—agreed Monday to a suspension without pay for the rest of the season, which will amount to 65 games and about $3.4 million, for violating Major League Baseball’s Basic Agreement and its Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. Extremely long story short: Braun used banned performance-enhancing drugs, and then lied about it and impugned the character of his urine collector, and then lied about it some more and in ever more flamboyant manners.
Even by the standards of sports journalism—the worst of which can be more self-righteous than religious dogma—the condemnations of Braun have been vicious. And there is incredibly little to disagree with in them.
Tyler Kepner, the New York Times’ national baseball correspondent, began his write-up with the following sentence: “There are liars and frauds and scoundrels, and then there are people like Ryan Braun, who somehow seem worse.”
Noted Slate’s Josh Levin: “It’s hard to fathom a larger chasm in the world of sports than the one separating athletes from the people who collect and label their excreta. As such, [urine collector] Laurenzi Jr.’s defense of his work got a lot less attention than Braun’s unprovoked, nationally broadcast attack. ‘This situation has caused great emotional distress for me and my family,’ the maligned urine collector said in a statement last year. ‘I have worked hard my entire life, have performed my job duties with integrity and professionalism and have done so with respect to this matter and all other collections in which I have participated.’”
ESPN’s top baseball writer Buster Olney argued that Braun owes a vast array of apologies to a vast array of people. “He owes an apology to the Milwaukee Brewers’ organization,” he said. “They gave him a big contract, and then signed him to a massive extension, worth about $150 million. They are a small-market franchise and they signed him to be their Cal Ripken, their leader, the centerpiece of their organization—and now he is no longer that, and can no longer be that, because his professional reputation and marketability are destroyed. He is not only a cheater, he is a cheater who lied about it, then attacked to protect the lie.” Olney’s article’s headline? “Braun is the Lance Armstrong of the MLB.”
There is one more dimension to the Braun story, though. Assuming we don’t count Amar’e Stoudemire—and, for all his good intentions and his current position as a coach for Canada’s Maccabiah Games team, let’s not count him—Braun is unquestionably the most famous active Jewish athlete. In fact, as Eric Freeman reported in Tablet last week, minus the PEDs, Braun’s career trajectory has him set for the Jewish-baseball pantheon currently occupied only by all-time greats Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax.
And so, among Jews, Braun now becomes a familiar figure: a shanda fur die Goyim. The Yiddish phrase translates, roughly, to “a shame before the non-Jews.” The idea is sort of two-fold: That more is expected of Jews, specifically by Jews; and that when a famous Jew fails to live up to those high standards, it makes us all look bad in the eyes of the rest of the world. Madoff is a shanda. Maybe Weiner and Spitzer. You get the idea. And Braun, now, will surely join their ranks.
This is something relatively assimilated Jewish people still say, and still mean sincerely; it’s not just, like, a Twitter thing. But it is interesting that the phrase persists in the original Yiddish. That language, essentially a German dialect written in Hebrew script which is now spoken only by a handful of native speakers from Eastern Europe as well as by members of several Hasidic sects, is explicitly ethnic (yid is Yiddish for “Jew”) and as such unavoidably paints the world in expressly ethnic, tribal terms. To call someone a shanda, in other words, is to think in ethnic terms doubly.
In sports, which are supposed to be one of the most convenient means for Jews to showcase their success and assimilation to the, well, goyim, the figure of the shanda stings particularly. In a volume of original essays about Jewish sports figures that I co-edited with New Republic editor Frank Foer, called Jewish Jocks, we featured a couple shandas. At book events, I am invariably asked, usually by alter kockers (literally “old farts,” but it’s usually meant affectionately, and I mean it affectionately) who make no attempt to hide their disapproval, why we stuck in an essay about Arnold Rothstein, the Jewish gangster who helped fix the 1919 World Series, and Bobby Fischer, the Jewish chess genius whose late-life conversion to total insanity placed a heavy emphasis on disgusting, unreconstructed anti-Semitism. (Actually, and this is perhaps telling, both of these essays have been published online: Rothstein, Fischer.) When pressed, I usually reply that our book was not intended to be purely celebratory; that, rather, we wanted to write a sort of fragmented history of Jews’ relationship to sports, and, like any group’s relationship to everything, that cannot be a purely happy tale.
I stand by that. But, thinking about Braun, I also wonder whether there is not something special to the figure of the shanda in sports. Sports are a deliberately rarefied arena where only our best selves are displayed. This is why it feels especially devastating when our athletes let us down, and particularly when they cheat; this is why the shanda effect feels magnified. But the general theme of the past 50 years of sports—from, roughly, the Muhammad Ali saga, through free agency and steroids and the NCAA and head trauma up to the present, is that the moral sports fan must appreciate the complexity of what goes on off the field, and moreover allow that to inform his appreciation of what goes on on it.
I don’t see why it shouldn’t be different for the world of Jewish sports and Jewish sports fans. Ryan Braun is a shanda. It’s sad. But we probably needed one by now.